/ ©: WWF South Africa Inge Kotze

Responsible Sugarcane

A group of sugarcane farmers in South Africa have been building a sustainability standard from the bottom up
Tree plantations and sugarcane dominate the fertile landscapes of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. As global demand grew for wood and paper from sustainable sources, timber farmers began to seek Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification: today, 80 per cent of South Africa’s tree plantation area is FSC certified. Sugar farmers watched with interest.Lotar Schulz, who grows 500 hectares of sugar and 240 hectares of timber on his family farm, could see which way the wind was blowing. In the early 2000s, he was elected chairman of Midlands North Environmental Committee representing some 230 commercial farmers on about 50,000 hectares.

“We decided the sugar industry in South Africa needed to develop its own sustainable management system,” says Lotar. “The big buyers are going to be demanding sustainability and traceability, and we knew that sooner or later something like FSC certification would come our way. We wanted to build something from the bottom up, developed by the grower for the grower.”

Farm planning 

The Noodsberg Canegrowers worked with neighbouring farmers from UCL Company Limited and the extension officer from the South African Sugarcane Research Institute, along with WWF- South Africa and the Mondi Wetlands Programme (a joint project of WWF-South Africa and the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, funded by international packaging and paper group Mondi). Over the course of nine years and many drafts, they developed the Sustainable Sugarcane Farm Management System, or SUSFARMS.  

SUSFARMS gives guidelines for better farm management practices that bring environmental, social and economic benefits. A supporting self-assessment tool makes it easy for farmers to monitor progress and identify areas for improvement. It is also a simple way to ensure they are complying with their various legal obligations. “Where growers are using SUSFARMS in our area, you can see that farms are improving and they’re getting more tonnes per hectares,” says Lotar.

One important aspect is having a farm land-use plan mapping out soil types, slopes, watercourses, wetland areas and so on – Lotar likens this to the architectural drawings you need before building a house. Planning roads and planting along contours, for example, could reduce erosion while avoiding wetland areas and restoring natural vegetation around watercourses is crucial for conserving South Africa’s scarce freshwater resources.

“The FSC process resulted in timber companies pulling back from wetlands, allowing a significant number of valuable wetlands to regenerate,” says Vaughan Koopman from the Mondi Wetlands Programme. “If sugar farmers do the same, as advocated in SUSFARMS, this will have a massive impact on South Africa’s threatened freshwater resources and habitats.”


The voluntary system has prompted such interest that the national industry body is now promoting SUSFARMS to sugarcane farmers throughout South Africa. Adopting SUSFARMS guidelines should, in future, help South African farmers achieve certification from Bonsucro, the global standard for sustainable sugar production.

Lotar is part of the Bonsucro farmers’ working group. He says the ideal would be to use SUSFARMS as a means towards creating a South African local equivalent of Bonsucro. As big players like The Coca-Cola Company and Unilever commit to buying sugar from certified sustainable sources, adopting SUSFARMS as a step toward Bonsucro certification could provide a significant market advantage.

Meanwhile, SUSFARMS provides a platform for cane farmers to engage with other land users, including the forestry industry. “We recently held a field day where farmers and foresters got together to share information and lessons learned on the benefits and challenges of farm planning and production management,” says Vaughan. “The more land users apply better practices such as farm planning, the greater the cumulative impact and the more assured we can be of our rivers and wetlands continuing to provide clean water for present and future generations.”

Better Production for a Living Planet Series

 / ©: WWF
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  • Degradation of freshwater resources, including pollution, availability, transformation of wetland and river buffer areas
  • Habitat conversion and biodiversity loss
  • Soil erosion, land degradation and associated impacts of sugarcane burning
  • Greenhouse gas emissions

  • Potential to reduce habitat destruction, biodiversity and water
  • Increased production on same area of farmland
  • Greenhouse gas avoidance, mitigation through biofuel production for fuel and plastics and co-generation
  • Improve water quality and availability
  • Improve and sustain livelihoods and economy of rural communities
  • Create opportunities for independent smallholders

Adopting SUSFARMS has significant environmental, social and economic benefits. It reduces the negative impacts of sugarcane production on South Africa´s scarce water resources and helps farmers operate more efficiently. It´s also getting growers on track and wellpositioned to apply for Bonsucro certification or a similar local equivalence rating.

Inge Kotze WWF Senior Manager Sustainable Agriculture Programme

WWF Targets

2015 10% of global sugarcane production is Bonsucro certified

  • Drive industry uptake of SUSFARMS®, monitoring and verification of farm improvements and integration with the global Bonsucro scheme.
  • Secure freshwater benefits and economic and social co-benefits by reconnecting landscapes through improved land use planning & production practices, effective natural resource management incl. fire management, grazing, alien invasive plant control.



3.32% of global sugarcane production is Bonsucro certified (Jan 2014).
  •  / ©: Bonsucro
    Bonsucro aims to improve the social, environmental, and economic sustainability of sugarcane. bonsucro.org

Sugar in South Africa

  • Currently no Bonsucro certified sugarcane on the market but a voluntary, local sustainable farm management system (SUSFARMS®)


    - 12th largest sugar producer in the world producing 2.2 million tonnes per annum which generates ZAR3 billion (or €215.875) yearly

    - 382,271 ha sugarcane production

    - Approx. 1,550 large-scale growers produce 84,69% of total sugarcane production

    - More than 27,580 small-scale growers produce 8,59% of the total crop


    About 70% marketed in Southern African Customs Union (SACU), remainder exported to other markets in Africa, Asia and the Middle East

  •  / ©: WWF-Canon / Rachel Wiseman

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